Tuesday, 22 January 2019

‘Merry Xmas’ rockers are still looking to the future

‘Merry Xmas’ rockers are still looking to the future

SEVENTIES glam rockers Slade are playing a festive season show at Oxford’s O2 Academy next Friday (December 14) — and lead guitarist Dave Hill is as keen as ever to ensure that “everybody’s having fun”.

Back in December 1973, the band released what was to become their biggest hit by some distance.

Merry Xmas Everybody sold more than a million copies on its initial release and has charted in every decade since — including every December since 2007, thanks to digital downloads counting towards the UK singles chart. Last year the song reached number 16 — its highest placing since 1973.

“Nobody can follow us when we do the Christmas song,” says Dave Hill, who has been the band’s lead guitarist since its formation in 1966.

“No act can follow us anywhere in the world because that song’s big everywhere — except America!” he acknowledges with a chuckle.

Following the departure of the lead singer Noddy Holder and bass player Jim Lea in 1992, Hill and the band’s drummer Don Powell decided to carry on touring with replacement musicians under the name Slade II.

They continued this way for 10 years before reverting to their original name in 2002.

While no reunion of the original line-up is now likely, Hill remains good friends with Holder, who contributed the foreword to Hill’s recent autobiography So Here It Is.

A key chapter of the book recounts how the band were on the verge of calling it a day for good back in 1980.

Having had six number ones in the Seventies, the hits had dried up — and with it the royalty payments that funded the band’s lifestyle.

“I was in financial difficulties,” admits Hill. “I hadn’t written a hit so I was short of money. And I said, well, I’ve got to try something. I’d got kids, you see.”

Hill’s brainwave was to go into the wedding car business, hiring out his gold-plated Rolls-Royce with himself as chauffeur. “That was where I was, financially and mentally,” he writes. “I was ready to give that a go, pack the band in, when I got a call from Chas.”

Chas being Chas Chandler, the original bassist in the Animals who went on to manage Jimi Hendrix before talent-spotting Slade in a basement club off Oxford Street in 1969 and managing them until the early Eighties.

So what was so all-important about that 1980 phone call?

“Something really weird happened that changed the course of everything,” recalls Hill. “It was weird in a way that was great. It was the Reading Festival and we’d never been asked to play that festival all throughout our career.

“What happened was, Ozzy Osbourne had formed a new band — he’d left Black Sabbath and he wanted to play Reading. But he pulled out because his band wasn’t ready — he didn’t feel rehearsed, you know, having just left Sabbath.

“Chas rang me up and he said, ‘Look, Dave, this is an amazing offer — there’ll be 40,000 people there.’ And I said, ‘Well, who’s on?’ He said, ‘There’s UFO, there’s Def Leppard, there’s Whitesnake...’ — it was all of them. And it sounded to me like a heavy festival. So I said to him, ‘Are you sure we’re going to be all right?’ And Chas says, ‘Dave, you’re a great band, you’ve always been a great band — and the thing is you’ve got the experience and you’ve got the songs.’ And he was so bloody right!

“When we went down there I was a bit nervous about it but the bloke who had booked us met us and he said, ‘It should be great for you — some of these heavy bands are right boring and they haven’t got any decent tunes!’

“And we went on the stage and we went down an absolute storm. And we weren’t even advertised. The announcer just said, ‘We’ve just had a replacement — Ozzy’s not doing it, we’ve got Slade.’ And there was a roar! We went on, and most of our set is hits anyway, and when we got to the middle of the set there was a moment when the audience started singing ‘Merry Christmas’. Forty thousand people singing ‘Merry Christmas’ and we weren’t even playing — we were just watching them. And it was summer! It was August! We did the show and within two or three months we had a hit record — and then we went and had even bigger hits in the Eighties. And really, I was about to leave. I’m glad I didn’t!

“I remember Chas standing at the side of the stage grinning like a Cheshire cat — and then we come off stage and all the bands and people are all clapping. And all of a sudden we were the top dogs and we weren’t even on the bill!

“It was a day that was great for me because I’ve always been passionate about this — like I am about playing Oxford!”

With support from Mud II — who had their own festive number one in December 1974 with Lonely This Christmas — Hill and Powell will be joined on stage by lead vocalist Mal McNulty and ex-Mud bass player John Berry.

But despite being famed for his outlandish costumes in Slade’s Seventies heyday, Hill’s infamous “Metal Nun” get-up is sadly unlikely to get an airing next Friday.

“Metal Nun was one of me more mad creations,” cackles Hill. “But one thing it did for us was it sent us to number one with Cum On Feel the Noize. Chas said it was absolutely amazing.”

Doors at the Cowley Road venue open at 6.30pm. Tickets are £24.50 and can be booked by calling 0844 477 1000 or visiting www.academy
musicgroup.com/o2academyoxford

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